The Merchant of Venice (2004)


(director/writer: Michael Radford; screenwriter: from the play by William Shakespeare; cinematographer: Benoit Delhomme; editor: Lucia Zucchetti; music: Jocelyn Pook; cast: Al Pacino (Shylock), Jeremy Irons (Antonio), Joseph Fiennes (Bassanio), Lynn Collins (Portia), Zuleikha Robinson (Jessica), Kris Marshall (Gratiano), Charlie Cox (Lorenzo), Heather Goldenhersh (Nerissa), Anton Rodgers (The Duke); Runtime: 131; MPAA Rating: R; producers:Cary Brokaw/Barry Navidi/Jason Piette/Michael Lionello Cowe; Sony Pictures Classics; 2004-Italy/UK-in English)
“A solid production that tries to overcome as best as it can its flaws, which include its anti-Semitic caricature of the Shylock.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The problem with William Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice is that it comes with a built-in ugliness it can’t escape from, as the anti-Semitic characterization of the moneylender Shylock is pivotal to the story and can’t be altered or rationalized or forgiven in a comic sense. It brings with it an ugly reminder of the anti-Semitic slurs that have continued through the centuries and have still not been washed away with time, and I don’t know how even a decent version such as this one can offer anything to say that can change the play’s ugly intent. This work offers no chance of getting to the roots of that bias if performed as is, but to not take the play as it’s written is to only trivialize the Bard’s work. But to take it at face value is to play into its dangerous generalizations about Jews which makes it, indeed, a challenging work to put on (a reason it has not been put to film in modern times). Nevertheless this film adaption (the first since the silent era) of this defiantly dark and brooding play is a solid production that tries to overcome as best as it can its flaws, which include its anti-Semitic caricature of the Shylock, its dull spots, and the third act courtroom scene of the seductive Portia (Lynn Collins) who is turned into a wily jurist when disguised as a man, who in her ridiculous transparency couldn’t have fooled anyone in the courtroom. This dramatically sophomoric and unintentionally funny courtroom presentation couldn’t be taken seriously, even if it was the so-called heart of the film.

It’s directed and scripted by Michael Radford (“Il Postino”/”Nineteen Eighty-Four”), who to his credit does his best to try to be faithful to the play while boldly trying to enrich the narrative with some interpretive stances. Radford’s reading of the play is intelligently presented, even if it never rids itself of the Bard’s anti-Semitic theme. He deals with the play’s 16th-century Venice anti-Semitism as best as he can, initially offering a brief statement in his prologue that puts in historical terms the European intolerance against the Jews as being a matter of the times (the Jews in the powerful liberal city-state of Venice were confined to live in a ghetto and became usurers because Christians weren’t allowed to). Radford also alters the play version by providing the specific date of 1596, in Venice, as when these events occurred.

The film is enriched by the lush filming in the actual Venice setting by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme who makes it look as if it were an unveiling of Renaissance paintings come to life and by Al Pacino’s surprisingly (at least for me, I didn’t think Al had it in him to do Shakespeare without being bombastic) understated, intense, humanizing, and eloquent performance as Shylock, which gave his character the underlying dignity and sympathy to not be fully dehumanized despite how his character is under constant attack for being unchristian. The remaining Brit supporting cast were just fine but not anything special, with a lively Lynn Collins being an appealing though hardly believable Portia. Also, Jocelyn Pook’s music inhabits the film with an appropriately rich resonance.

Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is a soft-spoken Christian aesthete, a successful merchant, and someone who recently spat on the Shylock when he left the ghetto during the day to do business on the Rialto bridge while wearing his red hat, as prescribed by law to be always worn as the way the Jew can be identified when he leaves the ghetto and enters a city, incidentally, infiltrated by barechested whores. Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), an unctuous character as there ever was, asks his close friend Antonio for a loan of 3,000 ducats needed to court the lovely wealthy noblewoman Portia in distant Belmont. But Antonio’s money is tied up in shipping ventures and he can’t give him the money except by getting a loan from the dreaded Shylock. The Shylock does not ask for his usual interest but makes the unusual request of Antonio to give him his pound of flesh if he fails to pay back the loan in three months.

Bassanio upon receipt of the money woos Portia in a game-like scenario (meant to be comic but awkwardly handled), where he wins the competition by guessing which chest with a riddle has Portia’s portrait. When Antonio loses all his money due to shipwrecks and the loan can’t be met, the Shylock asks the court to obey the law and give him his bond.

The Shylock has been persecuted all his life for being a Jew and when his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) steals his money and runs off to marry the Christian Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), even converting, this becomes too much for him to bear and he makes his need for vengeance both personal and as a payback for being made a scapegoat his entire life. The Shylock sticks to his bizarre request rather than belatedly accepting an offer of twice what his loan called for because there are more important things than money.

That the court under the Duke uses the law to turn the screws on the elderly Shylock and the young Portia is there to preach to him about mercy being a Christian virtue, one a Jew could hardly be expected to comprehend, is all that you have to know about the nature of the play to know that it can’t be relieved of its prejudice even in the best of attempts to do so.